Arena to get bank's name, maybe a face-lift


The Baltimore Arena will be renamed First Mariner Arena this year under an agreement that could also see the aging facility receive a face-lift based on New York's colorful Times Square.

Edwin F. Hale, chairman of First Mariner Bancorp and owner of the Baltimore Blast indoor soccer team, has agreed to pay the city $75,000 annually for 10 years in exchange for the right to name the 40-year-old Arena.

"It's going to definitely enhance our profile in the city, and it's affordable," Hale said yesterday.

"I thought long and hard about whether I should do this. But the neighborhood is looking better, and I'm there all the time. I'm the biggest tenant," he said.

The city's Board of Estimates approved the deal without discussion last week, and new signs could be on the building in a few months.

Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who supported the agreement with Hale at the Board of Estimates, said, "We're getting more money than we were getting before. I think that's good."

Hale is negotiating a separate deal in which a company he has formed would pay the city $200,000 a year and a percentage of profits in exchange for the right to market additional advertising signs on the building's exterior. The signs would be modeled after Times Square, known for its giant video boards, scrolling messages and flashing lights.

"I think it would beautify that area and work with the west-side development," Hale said.

The City Council would have to approve that sort of advertising on the outside of the building.

Hale is working on that venture with SMG, the company that manages the Arena, and Clear Channel Communications Inc., a San Antonio-based company with extensive outdoor advertising operations including more than 50 displays in Times Square.

For the time being, First Mariner's name will be the only advertising added to the building. Hale also plans cosmetic improvements such as the addition of neon lighting.

After Hale asked about the rights to name the arena, the city requested formal bids from companies over the summer. A minimum bid of $450,000 a year was established, based in part on a 1996 contract in which PepsiCo Inc. agreed to pay Albany County $320,000 a year to name an arena in Albany, N.Y.

Ads were placed in several newspapers, and companies including American Express Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. were sent cards inviting them to bid.

Arena Ventures LLC, a company formed last year by Hale to acquire and resell advertising rights at the Arena, submitted the only bid by the Aug. 7 deadline.

The company bid $300,000 a year, minus the $115,000 annual rent paid by the Blast and an amount equal to concession income and amusement tax derived from Blast games. That bid probably would have resulted in no payments to the city.

"The city called back and said, 'We can't do that. You've got to put some cash into this. How about $100,000 a year?' I said, 'How about $50,000?'" Hale said.

The two sides compromised on $75,000.

Although it is less than what the city sought, the amount is the result of competitive bidding, Hale said.

The city has the right in the agreement to cancel or renegotiate if another professional sports team moves into the Arena. Signs to be installed are subject to city approval.

Hale said the bank's board has been informed of the deal. The bank plans to buy the rights from Arena Ventures at cost, he said.

Kevin Lovitt, senior vice president with the sports marketing firm IMG, said, "I think that number is probably commensurate with the value. It's a 40-year-old arena that doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles, and people are going to keep calling it the Baltimore Arena.

"Could the city have cut a better deal? Maybe. But it's $75,000 they didn't have yesterday," said Lovitt.

Another expert, Andrew D. Appleby, president of General Sports and Entertainment in Rochester, Mich., said the value of naming an old arena with no major league sports tenant is diminished because it will not generate national media exposure for its sponsor.

"It seems a touch low, but it is an old arena. You are not going to have NBA playoffs or Monday Night Football there," Appleby said. "That sounds like an excellent deal for the bank."

The Arena opened in 1962 as the Civic Center. The National Basketball Association Bullets played there before moving to Landover, then to Washington, where they became known as the Wizards. Elvis Presley and the Beatles played there in its heyday.

The 14,000-seat arena has had events on an average of 130 to 140 days each year in recent years, but has lost sports tenants such as the BayRunners basketball team. The Blast is its only sports tenant, and their games account for about 14 percent of the bookings.

Aaron Greenfield, a lawyer for the city, said, "We see this as a big plus. This is general fund relief. In addition, we think having a respectable banking institution attached to the Baltimore Arena is good for the city and the area."

The Arena's general manager, Donna Julian, said any new investment in the Arena should help.

"Ed has some wonderful ideas that we will sit down and discuss," Julian said. "This should be a win-win for everyone."

Hale said he supports efforts to get a new arena for the city and hopes this agreement will keep him involved in those efforts.

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